Posted in Intern advice, Written by Tom

Creative and Concise Writing – apps/websites which can help!

So you need to do some creative writing. Or maybe make your essays more concise and improve you summaries. Or improve  flow when typing up essays or writing exams. How do you train yourself up on these things when you find them difficult? Its hard to train your Creative Writing skills (although we do offer a 301 Workshop) and inspire the idea of a writing ‘flow’ when its just something which comes from you as an individual.

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So it must be improved upon with indivual training, young writing Padawan. How can you do this? Well, there are two apps at hand to help you tackle these issues. And I, your humble servant, have reviewed them both to see what can best benefit you, depending on what writing improvements you are looking for.

Ilys

The Deal:

Select a word count to write to. Press go. You will then write. Only catch is,  you can’t tell what you have already written, only the letter you have just typed. No backspacing either. The end product will include all of your spelling mistakes. Designed to make your writing more concise; you think more about what you should write next considering you can’t delete it, and also because you are trying to remember what you have already written. It could also maybe be used as a tool to improve spelling by forcing people to think about how to spell words.

The Verdict:

It does perform quite well for the reasons given above. In a time when it is so easy to backspace any errors and lose your train of thought because you can always come back to an electronic piece of work, this is something more old school and traditional.

One of my lecturers often said that we should write out our essay drafts, despite being word documents only. This is because you think more critically about what you are writing, going off the previous trail of thought rather than easily being able to come back to it later. Having to actually write something out means that you aren’t going to waffle for the sake of it.

I think a similar thing  can be said for this app. You’re obviously going to make mistakes when writing it. You might be at a loss of words and write a rubbish sentence which doesn’t flow with what you are trying to get at/what you want to say. You’re working to a set word count, it isn’t something you can come back to and delete later.

But this encourages a further attempt in which you disregard that information. You may wonder the point of this. Why not simply type it in an editable word document? But with editing, leave in unnecessary stuff as an oversight, when those words could be better used in regards to your stronger argument/sentences. Remember my lecturer.

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Sometimes it is better to start again from scratch. With fresh eyes, you argument will be more concise, and will follow a more consistent flow. This app would be great for argument based subjects like history and philosophy where word counts and clear concise arguments are key factors.

However I wouldn’t recommend it so much for creative writing. With a set word count limit, and not being able to see what you have typed before, I imagine that it would stall creativity by being restricted within word counts rather than having free reign. True creativity and imagination requires freedom, right?

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I personally don’t like the fact that I am forced to live with my spelling mistakes. While you can copy and paste what you have written once you are finished and edit it afterwards, I feel like a lot of people (myself included) would be annoyed or put off their writing flow knowing that they have made a spelling mistake and cannot correct it. This is especially annoying if you misspelt something simply due to mistyping.

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Also, a bug I have found is that if you were spelling a word with two of the same letter consecutively i.e. (‘tt’ in ‘letter’) it doesn’t actually acknowledge the fact that you have written two letters as the word count doesn’t change and there’s no visual change either. It will have acknowledged all the letters you have inputted at the end, but again, it distracts (at least my own) flow when writing.

Overall, I think this would be a good application to use if you feel you need to be more concise with your work or summarise more. It might also be useful to use when typing up a draft to think how your points link together. However, in terms of spurring creative writing, I think that the next app would be a far better choice.

The Most Dangerous Writing App

So you want something which can inspire a flow, or at least make you a better writer. Well maybe this app will make you enjoy or make your writing better as much as it does for SpongeBob.

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The Deal:

You write. But there’s a catch. Make sure you know what you’re going to write next, because if you dont, then everything you write will disappear off screen within 5 seconds or so.

The Verdict:

You have to know where your idea or story is going next. Being on the spot while typing sends your writing mind into overdrive. What is also good is that this time you can actually see what you are writing (until it disappears). This means you can glimpse to see if your sentences make sense and what would be a better use of your words. Useful for creative writing, this would also be a good way to see if your arguments make sense and connect. In this way you could use it to narrow down your word counts as well.

Obviously you can’t use it to write your full essay on, but it terms of storyboarding or working something out this is a great tool. The only problem I see with this is that if you press spacebar and backspace repeatedly during a gap in your flow, then you actually stop the text from fading. Maybe this isn’t so much of a bug (unsure how they’d fix it unless space didn’t count as a character) and is actually a cheat which I shouldn’t be telling you, but it didn’t take me long to figure out when I was put on edge.

Overall, I think that if you are looking to practise writing creatively, choose this. If you’re struggling with word counts, go to Ilys. But don’t take me word for it, go play! You may as well try to make revision/writing practise as fun as you can.

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Posted in Extracurricular, Written by James

The Google Suite: A Sheffield Student’s Misunderstood Friend

 

Ever heard of a little company called “Google”? Of course you have. You probably use at least four of their products on a daily basis, probably more. They’re best known for their search engine, which has held its dominant position in the market for so long they became a verb. Of course, YouTube is probably their next most recognisable website. If we were to produce a study, I would be willing to bet my tuition fee money on it being the website most responsible for student procrastination. It’s a fool’s bet, since any cursory walk around the library will give you all the evidence you need.

However, while Google can be your biggest obstacle in your quest to get a decent education, it can also be your greatest friend. Google search is possibly the most powerful research engine in the world (our lovely StarPlus coming a close second) but you didn’t click on this to read about what you already knew.

What you might be less aware of, is that your university account is also a Google account, giving you easy and full access to the Google Suite. These are apps most students will have used before or at least know of. But nobody ever uses them to their full potential. Google for Business, as it’s called, is a set of incredibly polished apps designed to work seamlessly together. If used efficiently and properly, Google goes from the friend who buys you another pint to the one who drives you home.

So, let’s get started!


Google Calendar

I’ve only really started using Google Calendar properly this year, when all of a sudden my schedule got a lot more dense. Honestly, I don’t quite know where I’d be without it. Its easily accessed through the ‘My Services’ menu on MUSE, and gives you an extremely powerful timetabling system. Of course, the calendar can also be synced to your phone by downloading the Google Calendar app and logging in with your MUSE credentials. The iPhone calendar app can sync with Google Calendar, but the stock Google app is much more efficient.

Creating an event is easy. Events can be colour coded, set to repeat regularly or irregularly; as well as a whole host of other features. Events can be programmed to give you half hour reminders by default, or other notifications. For example, an upcoming exam can be set to notify you in a month, then two weeks, then one, etc. When all of his information is available with a quick glance of your phone, timetabling becomes easy. Multiple calendars can be set up for different categories of event. For example, if you’re working a part time job, like me, you might want to use a different account than you university one to calendar these events. The visibility of a calendar can be turned on and off easily, giving you an easy look at how much time is being spent where.

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An example of my calendar on a desktop computer

This can even by synced with Gmail. Google’s smart algorithms can pick out dates and times of events from the content of an email, meaning you can add society or academic events directly to your calendar. You can explicitly create events and share them through gmail as well! So there’s no more excuses for missing the study group!

This is an essential tool for any student with a poor memory like me, and a useful one even for those who are abnormally organised. I heavily recommend using this tool as much as you can!

Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides

Almost everybody uses Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint for their office or academic needs. This is done with good reason, as they’re not only free for students at Sheffield through the CiCS website, they’re also extremely powerful tools. But most people never use these apps to do the really complicated stuff, which means that for many people, they use Word just because they know they’re comfortable with it. I’m going to suggest that for the casual user who wants simple features with a few convenient extras, Google’s own software might be the better choice.

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It functions very similarly to Microsoft Word, so its easy to get to grips with!

When opening a new Google Docs file, it looks very familiar. All the buttons are in the same place they would be on Microsoft Word, if a little bit cut down. What makes Google Docs apart are a few important features?

  1. Google Docs saves with every change, so you’ll never lose your work. Seriously, if a bolt of lightning hits the computer when you’re writing your essay, you’ll lose at most a letter. It is constantly saving your process, meaning you can immediately get back to what you’re doing.
  2. It syncs through Google Drive, meaning its accessible through any computer. All you have to do is log in with MUSE and navigate to the file and you can get back to work. None of this UniDrive rubbish and managing various different versions of the same document. Just load it up and off you go.
  3. You can easily share your document, and edit it with others at the same time. This is invaluable for sharing notes or working on a group project. Entire documents can be shared with others using their university email or just a link. Google’s edit history shows exactly who edited what, and participants can leave comments for others to respond to. Working on a group PowerPoint needn’t be done face to face if it’s just not practical. Combine this with Google Hangouts, Google’s chat and voice app, and group work is extremely easy.

They might be a little bit more simple, but these features can make your life quite a lot easier if you weren’t using those features anyway. Plus, any Google Docs file can be saved as a Microsoft Word file if you find yourself wanting one of those more complicated features. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this amazing tool, but those are the features I find most notable.

Google Keep

You might not have heard of this one, as it’s a little bit more niche than the others. Google Keep is a notetaking app meant to rival that of apps like Evernote. Simple, short notes such as shopping lists, to-do lists, reminders, recipes etc. can be taken, sorted, synced and shared all through this one little app. It has multi-media capability, meaning images can be saved just as easily as text, as well as being integrated through the entire google suite. This means you can share a note via Gmail, or embed a link to your Google Doc into your to-do list!

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Lists are easy to manage on desktop. And easy to make and view on mobile!

I’ve been hit and miss with this app. It is quite powerful, yet at the same time it really depends on how much you and others use it. Due to the fact that few people actually use it, when sharing a Keep note you might find people respond with confusion rather than thanks. However, if you’re the type to keep digitised notes, to-do lists and more, you might find it useful to have an app available everywhere to keep you more organised!

Google Drive

If you have a university account, you have an extremely large amount of cloud storage space available to you through Google Drive. This is the ultimate way to keep your university documents backed up, safe and secure. Say goodbye to the old USB stick, as Google Drive enables you to keep everything online!

Google Docs, Gmail and Keep are all fantastically integrated with Drive. All of your Google Docs files will be saved on the drive, so available anywhere. You can load attachments straight from your drive account into an email.

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Being able to access these files from anywhere means everything is at your fingertips.

All of this is fairly old hat, Drive is quite well known by this point. However, what you might know less about is Google’s Team Drives. The Team Drives are perfect for committees sharing resources, group work or even whole lecture groups.

Instead of hosting documents everywhere, messing around constantly with access and editing permissions, you can simply create a group drive and invite everybody to it. From there everybody can create and edit documents within the drive, with a constantly updating record of who has edited what and when. The true power of the Google Suite is revealed here. Everybody can have a shared Google Calendar, Drive and Document space to voice concerns, discuss and write.

Even if the worst happens, and somebody deletes everything out of spite or stupidity, Google Drive can restore these deleted items or previous versions within 30 days!


Conclusion

So that’s the Google Suite, a stupidly powerful set of applications we all have access to and should understand. I think they are criminally underused by the majority of students, either because they don’t know how or don’t want to put in the effort to get used to something new! But these are used in hundreds of businesses to great effect. Here at 301 we use Google Calendar and Gmail extensively, as well as Google Drive. The same can be said of the rest of the academic and administrative staff at the University of Sheffield.

I hope this has persuaded you to experiment with them too! The more people who use them on a regular basis, the easier they will be to use with peers. Google might have dropped their pledge to “not be evil”, but they make some very high quality apps!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uni work, Written by Jun

What can you learn from the Manchester University Academic Phrasebank?

overwork GIF by Carlotta Notaro

When I just came to the UK to study, I was very confused about the standard academic writing in social science subjects. I was worried because I was bad in this and I knew this was very important that no one of us can afford to be without. I am quite sure that some of you might also struggle with academic writing for your study as well. I was recommended the Manchester University Academic Phrasebank. It is absolutely a useful resource you can make use of to help your study, particularly when you need to improve your academic writing significantly. Today, I would like to give my comments of this resource such as its effectiveness, advantages and disadvantages combined with my advice.

First of all, let me share the link of this resource with you: http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/

 

User navigation

Although the page does not look ‘amazing’, it is comprehensive enough already to give users a simple but clear direction towards the information they are seeking for. First, the pop-up menus at both the top and left-hand side are constantly displayed; this brings you convenience to find particular information when you are on different pages. Second, this resource is downloadable in both PDF and Kindle format; the icons of PDF download and Kindle are always there available for you to download. Third, every single piece of academic guidance is displayed as a superlink under a clear hierarchical structure from the top level of the classification through to the lowest. I believe these three advantages with regards to user navigation will keep you accurately navigated without confusion of where you are on the site.

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Menu

The menu on the top of the page follows the structure of a typical and standard academic paper in a majority of academic disciplines. This structure usually begins with introduction and background of the topic, followed by its supporting review of literature by drawing on the evidence from existing studies. Methods/methodology will be the third step in this structure where the way of conducting the study is described including research design, research data collection and data analysis. Following the methods is the presentation of findings and results emerged from the study, which should be discussed with arguments later in the ‘discussion’ section. The final step is to give your conclusion. This resource provides you with a huge number of standard academic expressions and phrases in each section under the above structure. What you should do is just to click on the items on this menu. Then you will be able to see a brief introduction and key points of the section. At the bottom of the page, you will see a lot superlinks in relation to different situations where you need to express a particular statement. What you can do is to paraphrase your writing by these standard academic writing expressions suggested for you. For example, if you want to include a reference about what other researchers do in their text, a good way to express so is “Smith (2000) questions whether mainstream schools are the best environment for …” This is one of the ‘off-the-peg’ templates provided on the site available for you to use.

Similar to this is the menu on your left-hand side where a range of general language functions are provided for you within various contexts of your writing, such as ‘being cautious’, ‘defining terms’ and ‘giving examples’. What you can do is also to click on the links inside each of these functions and refer to yourself specific use of these functions.

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Content

The most important section of my evaluation is the content of this resource. From my personal experience point of view, this is a very useful resource for non-English speakers particularly when you are not so confident in academic writing. Basically, I believe that this resource has three main advantages to your study.

Firstly, by using the suggested writing expressions, your writing will no longer look cumbersome or run-of-the-mill. A good writing in academic context should avoid repeatedly using the same kind of expression. Either you can change the structure of the sentence and paragraph, or, you can replace some key words with the ones you have not been using. For example, when you make an argument in a literature review, you may encounter the situation where you need to cite previous studies. An awkward way to do so is to keep using the expression like “Many researches (citations) have shown that….”. Instead, you can change the way of your articulating by saying “Traditionally, it has been argued that … (citations)”, or saying “There is a consensus among scholars/researchers… (citations)”, or even saying “Several lines of evidence suggest that … (citations)”. See? Do use different expressions for the same type of arguments. Your writing will then look more ‘good-looking’.

Secondly, this resource will bring you a habit of thinking and expressing really in academic terms, using academic logics. You may encounter quite a lot writing occasions in your daily life, e.g. emails, letters, short messages, social media posts etc. You may have been inclined to informal writing without considering the appropriateness of language usage. If you regularly spend some time reading this resource, you will be able to convert your writing style towards academic writing every time when you start knocking at your keyboard. This will bring you comfort when you finally accomplish your essay.

Thirdly, this recourse is useful to almost all academic subjects no matter what study you do. The resource also can be used to a large range of types of writing; for example, writing for the description of an experiment, the findings of social investigation, and the citation of a particular existing research, etc. To put it simply, this resource is able to facilitate your writing at any point from the beginning to the end of your essay whatever the type of the essay is.

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You have now found out how useful this resource is. However, you also need to pay attention to the disadvantages of this resource. The main disadvantage is that you might be completely relied on this resource whenever you start writing. This is absolutely not the purpose of this resource. Even though you really think the writing tips and templates provided by this resource are helpful to your own writing, you should utilise it in a smart way. Instead of looking up which suggested expression is the most appropriate, you ought to think it over first by yourself. If you are still struggled, then you can have a look at these expressions to decide which might be the best for you. After this, you should keep it in your mind for your future reference rather than just forget it and come back again next time when you encounter the same issue.

Secondly, do not always use the exact suggested key phrases on this guidance. In order to ensure your expression best fits with the context of your writing, you need to think about the most suitable key words or phrases you use. This means that you can still follow the template of the expressions, but it is not good to always use the same word suggested there for your writing without considering your writing context.

If you are an undergraduate student now you can consider improving your academic writing skills; if you are a postgraduate taught student, you should start strengthening your writing to a more in-depth level; if you now are doing a PhD, you should definitely arm yourself with pretty decent academic writing skills and develop your own writing style.

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I believe this resource is useful to most of you who are not confident in academic writing. But this is not the only good resource. If you want to significantly improve your academic writing, you may also want to attend some academic writing workshops or classes alongside your reference to this resource. That will be much better!

Hope this resource can give you a hand to your writing. Good luck!

Posted in Intern advice, Written by Arinola

Doing it all with Canva (Review)

Canva is a design platform with a ton of templates and applications. You may have come across it when trying to find an alternative to Microsoft PowerPoint but it has other uses. You can also design customised planners, calendars, brochures, posters, logos, infographics and postcards. The possibilities are endless! Canva is free to use but you can upgrade for a fee to use custom dimensions, collaborate with a team or more.
I first used Canva in 2016 to create a presentation as part of the application process for a placement. I was quite nervous because I had to send the slides in beforehand to present them at an assessment centre. Canva was the perfect outlet for me because I was keen to have a slick presentation that was easy to make. I’m pretty confident that I achieved that.

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Since then, I have used Canva to make a trifold brochure for my final placement review and yet another presentation for a job – this job!

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It is pretty obvious by now that I’m a big fan of Canva and there a couple of reasons why:

  1. It is great if like me you struggle with making visually appealing work when confronted with a blank page. The ready made templates get you off to an great start that you can build on because they provide structure.
  2. It is beginner friendly – you do not have to be a design guru to create awesome content.
  3. Your work is saved as you go so you don’t have a panic attack when you accidentally close the page.
  4. There is a free library of stock photos you can use that are not (annoyingly) watermarked.
  5. You can download JPG, PNG and PDF versions of your design or even order prints. The latter is a feature I have yet to try myself.

While I’m a big fan, I think it’s only fair that I highlight a few drawbacks.

  1. Having so many template options can make you waste time in trying to find the perfect one.
  2. A template can feel limiting if it doesn’t work with the structural vision you have in mind but looks great otherwise.

Regardless of these, I think it is definitely worth trying out at least to flex your creative muscle 😉

 

Posted in All things 301, student life, Written by Stefana

January Exams

We are half way through the semester and everyone is busy with midterms, assignments and deadlines while looking forward to the Winter holidays. But after the holidays will be over, the exam period will start. Even though there are two more months until then, it is never too early to start planning. Here are a few tips that help me prepare for exams:

  1. Make a list of all the exams you will have in January

Go through every module and make sure you know how it will be assessed. Try to find out as much information as possible about the exam such as the assessed topics, the dates and location, the percentage from the final mark, if it is open or closed book, multiple choice or essay based. Knowing what and how many exams you will have can help organise your time better.

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2. Allocate study time for each exam

After you find out what topics are included in the exams, try to roughly estimate how much time you will need to study for each one of them. Allocate specific days or time periods in a day (whatever suits your studying style best) to certain exams in order to plan.

3. Organise your study material

Go through all your lecture slides and extra material provided by the teacher. If you have taken notes during the lecture, try comparing them with the lecture slides so that you don’t miss on any extra information. The Encore recordings on Mole are also important, they can help you remember other ideas that were mentioned during lectures. After organising all the relevant materials and knowing what needs to be revised, you will find studying much more easier.

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4. Study and stay focused!

Turn your Wi-fi and data off, put your phone/tablet away and start studying! You could motivate yourself by having some treats after a couple of hours of studying.

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If you want to find out more about how to handle exams better, 301 has three workshops related to exams: Exam Revision Planning, Exam Technique: Essay-Based Exams, and Exam Technique: Short Answer and MCQ. Go to the 301 website to book them online.